The Emotional Journey through Grief
Author: Judy Tatelbaum
When facing separation, loss, or death, we are invariably thrown into a turmoil of mixed and intense emotions. Some of these feelings may seem foreign or unexpected. Some are hard to bear. We may feel several different, sometimes conflicting, emotions all at once. We may expect to feel only sadness, but rarely is grief confined to a single emotion.
Besides experiencing a mix of feelings like sadness, anger, regret, longing, guilt, and loneliness, we may also experience mood swings. All of that intensity can feel unrelenting and frightening. We may even secretly wonder if we are going crazy. Grief at its most intense can feel that way, as we are thrown off balance by trying to manage so many emotions all at once.
The loss of a loved one is often traumatic and difficult to accept. One way we may respond is with fear. Our fears, anxiety, dark thoughts, and nightmares can make us question our mental stability, too. Yet these are natural reactions to loss. Several widows have mentioned waking with panic feelings, which they had never experienced before. One woman started hyperventilating while entering a hospital where her husband had died. We must have compassion for ourselves when we have these very uncomfortable, yet natural, responses to loss. These feelings can be part of our emotional journey. If we need it, we may want to take antianxiety medication temporarily.
Guilt is another common reaction after a loss. We want to rewrite the circumstances, as if our behavior could alter the terrible facts. These "if only"s keep us mired in grief. Hard as it is to remember, sometimes we are impotent to intervene or control life and death. Our guilt will dissipate when we can accept this reality.
Having regrets is human nature. In every relationship there are things we did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say, that we regret after the relationship ends. It is essential to our healing that we have compassion for our errors or omissions. Regret and disappointment, like guilt, are feelings that we need to allow ourselves to experience and then release.
A difficult feeling to face is anger at the one who is gone or at those who took the one we loved from us. For some, anger is an empowering emotion, preferable to the more vulnerable feelings of sadness and regret. Anger is natural when a loss or death occurs, regardless of who or what makes us angry. Allowing and expressing anger is healthy. Staying endlessly angry is not.
Loneliness and longing can be difficult for us, too, as these feelings pull on our heartstrings and make us feel powerless. Of course we will miss the one we have lost. Loneliness and longing for the person or for the life that preceded their disappearance is natural. However, at some point we must stop looking back at all we lost and look forward to whatever lies ahead.
Our bodies, as well as our souls, react to the loss of a loved one. We may notice a lot of tension or frequent colds or aches and pains that we never had before. Sleep problems are also common for people who are grieving. It may help to understand that our loss impacts us deeply on every level, and even more important we need to know that these reactions are temporary.
WHERE TO GET HELP
Whenever we are uneasy with our grief feelings, we might be reassured by seeking the help of a grief therapist, especially if uncomfortable and intense feelings persist too long and disrupt our lives. Sadness and tears are healthy expressions of sorrow. But when our sadness intensifies into despair and depression or suicidal thoughts that we cannot seem to overcome, we should seek help from a professional counselor or therapist.
Not only do we question our sanity when we are brokenhearted, but we may wonder if we have what it takes to survive our painful loss. Allowing and expressing our feelings is what helps us move through them. Holding onto feelings causes them to persist. Feelings expressed disappear. As we let go of our pain and sorrow, we begin to heal.
Releasing feelings means expressing them aloud, verbally and through tears, and also by writing them down. We need to distinguish, name, and examine each emotion. Then we might imagine our feelings as clouds or skywriting that pass in front of us and then disappear. We might picture putting all our expressed feelings into an imaginary balloon which we tie tightly and release into the sky or seal into a plastic bag and place the bag in the trash. However we do it, it’s important to see that our feelings are not permanent.
We need to trust that grief is a process that lessens our pain over time. Most of all, we must trust that we have untapped abilities to heal, untapped courage to survive this painful time. We must remind ourselves that we can and will recover. The more we allow our feelings to be expressed, the more we will heal and move off of the emotional roller coaster of grief. Remember we can love the one we lost forever, but we need not be in pain forever to express that love.
By Judy Tatelbaum, LCSW: Judy Tatelbaum, LCSW, is a psychotherapist who specializes in grief and author of the books, The Courage to Grieve and You Don’t Have to Suffer. Other grief related articles are on her website: www.judytatelbaum.com. She can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org